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Published: Verve Magazine, Screen, November 2008

Nine Mumbai-inspired movies have been released already this year. Sitanshi Talati-Parikh explores the city’s iconography, in a retrospective look at major Mumbai films

The throbbing, pulsating city has a million stories to tell. Every minute that ticks by on the Rajabhai Tower, something new happens, and it is the numerous faces of the city that film-makers strive to capture. Its myriad voices and its many tales, the sordid truths and the fantastical goings on. The city is at once a context for relationships and events, and often a hero or even an anti-hero. It is a city of romance, aspirations, gross inequalities, fundamentalism and cosmopolitanism, strength and unity and great divisiveness. It is the city of extremes and in that sense, remarkably a city of the world – a microcosm depicting the inane possibilities that surround us. Its distinctiveness, which only a person who has spent sufficient time in the city, discovers. The cutting chai and the Iranian tea houses, the Mercedes’ and the Mumbai trains, the five star hotels and Dharavi slums, art deco Marine Drive and the Victorian Kala Ghoda area, the meandering bylanes and the heaving buses that wind through these zones, the vendors and the businessmen, the young lovers and the social climbers.

City of dreams
In this deeply aspirational city, the rags-to-riches stories can be recounted by the dozen, whether one thinks of Guru (2007) or the Munnabhai movies, as throngs of people continue to relocate to the ‘big city’ in the hope of a better life. It is their tragic and often wondrous stories that need to be told, very often by those in the Bollywood film fraternity, who may have had similar experiences. Director, Anurag Kashyap, for instance, moved to the city, struggling initially, staying at the St Xavier’s College hostel and hanging out with a band called Greek. These experiences prompted him to make Paanch (2003), an urban crime thriller involving a rock band; while Black Friday (2007), about the Mumbai riots, was inspired by a book he read.

Dark alleys and grim landscapes
The city’s black side, its alter ego, is more evocative and larger than life. It opens up its dark and mysterious corners to the exploration of themes that are a grim reality. Johnny Gaddaar (2007), a noir crime thriller shot in black, white and red, explores the sinister elements in a person’s character, in much the manner of Ek Hasina Thi (2004). Aamir (2008), a thriller about fundamentalism, where an NRI Muslim goes through a freakishly disastrous time on arrival in Mumbai and Mumbai Meri Jaan (2008) about the serial bomb blasts in Mumbai on 7/11, which depict how the blasts led to chaos and irrationality stemming from fear and loss of control in people’s lives.

Cosmopolitan angst
A city that has rivers of gold and the greatest power struggles, is also home to a good deal of metropolitan frustrated violence – when aspirations are not met. Cosmopolitan angst is an equally prominent contemporary theme, as clearly portrayed by the reality-inspired Life in a… Metro (2007), Page 3 (2005), Dus Kahaniyaan (2007), Mumbai Cutting (2008), and even the pedantic Mumbai Salsa (2007). Reminiscent of Paris, je t’aime, Mumbai Cutting is less about love and more about the grim realities of the city. Dus Kahaniyan (2007) picks up on urban themes like extramarital affairs, drugs, violence and relationships. It makes one wonder if love actually exists any more – candyfloss has disappeared from its smoggy walls. Jogger’s Park (2003) picks up a theme of a relationship between an elderly man and a young girl. Exploring relationships and the varied kind of situations life places one in, is a trend of Mumbai-based or metro-based films.

Big city tinsel town
People living in smaller towns look at the movies depicting the big city life with great interest, while those living in the city naturally identify with it. Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon (2003) is a film where small town aspirations for tinsel town come to life. TV artiste and upcoming big screen actor Sid Makkar provides some finer insight. Luck By Chance, Zoya Akhtar’s upcoming film, in which he plays a part, is naturally located in Mumbai, since the movie is about the film industry. Makkar finds that the majority of movies about Mumbai are steeped in reality – and “reality is entertaining”.

Platform rendezvous and car chases
While the Golden Gate Bridge of San Francisco or the Empire State Building (in lieu of the missing World Trade Centre towers) in Manhattan are iconic structures of the city, we find the Mumbai local trains as a constant motif in movies on the city. As the train thunders along, many a story is told. Think of Mumbai Meri Jaan (2008) on the serial bomb blasts, Life in a… Metro (2007) where a clandestine meeting takes place at the local train station, Chameli (2003) takes one from Lamington Road to Kamathipura, Kundan Shah’s Hero in Mumbai Cutting is about the local train commuter as the city’s unsung hero, or even A Wednesday (2008), Saathiya (2002) and Dombivali Fast (2005). Similarly, Taxi No 9211 (2006), is a thrilling cab chase through the streets of Mumbai, loosely based on Hollywood film Changing Lanes (2002) that takes place in New York.

Waves, sand and love trysts
Many an iconic love story has been told on the streets of Mumbai – Marine Drive, Chowpatty, Worli sea face, Bandra reclamation and Juhu-Chowpatty. Bluffmaster’s (2005) glamourous love trysts, Guru’s (2007) impassioned rise to fame starting with a determined walk on Marine Drive, Hum Tum (2004) finds the star-crossed lovers coming together on Chowpatty beach in true cosmopolitan fashion (ironically, not in Paris, the city of romance). Not to forget the coming-of-age of youths in Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na (2008), love sparks in Lage Raho Munnabhai (2006), and the problems of urban marriage Chalte Chalte (2003).

Monsoon saris and dewdrops
Come monsoon, the city bursts into a flood of romantic fervour. The wind-splashed windscreens and swaying palm trees on Chowpatty-Marine Drive are all symbolic of a dark sensuality. Huddled under the umbrella, a generation that grew up in the city feels the homeliness in its murky puddles and blackened sky-scrapers; while those who moved here looking for something better, have a wistful sense of allegiance and belonging. Think of the romance in Chandini (1989), iconic Raj Kapoor and Nargis in Shree 420 (1955), Amitabh Bachchan and Smita Patil in Namak Halaal (1982) and even the blossoming of love amidst grim city reality in Satya (1998).

The haves and the have nots
Anyone who arrives in the city cannot miss the straggly-haired, skinny street children that wander about looking for a benefactor. At every traffic signal and outside a food place you are accosted with them. Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay (1988) that was nominated for an Academy Award (Best Foreign Language Film) told the tale of Mumbai’s street children which now, in Traffic Signal (2007), becomes a tale of a full-fledged business. As with any big city – but particularly in a city like Mumbai that sees so much disparity between the rich and the poor – emerge tales of inequality, angst and violence. Mumbai Express (2005) describes the economic disproportion in a comic tale of Dharavi slum-dwellers plotting the kidnapping of a rich businessman’s son, while Kidnap (2008) is a movie where an orphaned youth takes revenge for a false kidnapping charge. Chandni Bar (2001) describes the tale of a young village girl, who moves to Mumbai and is forced to become a bar dancer by her uncle.

Fundamental terror
Terror camps aiming for the greatest impact by hitting the most aspirational part of a country can be found making Mumbai their target – creating a great deal of threat and insecurity. Fundamentalism, power struggles and gang wars have been the overriding theme in most of the recent films on or about Mumbai. Where a cosmopolitan love story bloomed in Mani Ratnam’s Bombay (1995), the city also took its pound of flesh in the face of fundamentalism. A decade (1985-1995) that witnessed a bloody mafia war in Mumbai, led to a barrage of films being made about the behind-the-scenes of this underworld terror, exposing the policemen-politicians-criminals nexus at a time when extortion was rife. Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya (1998) and Company (2002), an expose of the underworld gangsters that were an intrinsic part of the city at the time, before the police ran a cleansing act with a great deal of encounters, it would seem that older movies like Don (1978), were simply a tip of the iceberg that was to become Mumbai mafia. Vaastav (1999) starring Sanjay Dutt was the making of a mafia kingpin, while Ram Gopal Varma’s Sarkar (2005) and its sequel Sarkar Raj (2008), starring Bachchan senior and junior, picked up from Hollywood’s Godfather (1972), to depict the reality of a mafia family that holds the city at ransom. Shootout at Lokhandwala (2007) tells the graphic tale of the 1991 underworld encounter that made Mumbai a war zone. Black Friday (2007), Aamir (2008), Mumbai Meri Jaan (2008) and A Wednesday (2008) expose the nakedness and vulnerability of our city, and question our placid acceptance or numb nonchalance towards the problems that exist.

Absurdist desperation
A Wednesday (2008) is about a bomb scare where a citizen takes matters into his own hands to prevent the continuous outbreak of violence that has made it a dangerous city to live in. At a stage when its citizens are fearful of taking the daily train, or even walking on the street, you begin to question protection provided by the city that is your home. It is an absurdist movie taking a freakish stance about a serious problem that is being evaded or ignored by a majority of the ‘snoozing’ public.

It appears that film-makers have shifted their stance from simply portraying realities, to sounding a wake-up call to the citizens. Where the older films would explore economic disparities, love and building a life in the city, the newer films are darker in their representation. Suddenly the trouble-makers are no longer families or individuals – it is a problem that society and the country as a whole, need to address. When movies on 9/11 are made, they depict the country and the people coming together. When the serial blasts happened in India, why is it that it seemed to be more of a cry for help and a frightening portrayal of our own vulnerability than an exultation of the greatness of spirit and bond of human race?

From the people, by the people
It is easy to see why UTV CEO, Siddharth Kapur feels that, “It hasn’t been a deliberate decision to have so many movies about Mumbai (UTV has been a part of Aamir, Mumbai Meri Jaan and A Wednesday) but these are times we are living in right now. There is bound to be an influence by the age of terrorism and riots. It so happens that a lot of film-makers have been born and brought up in the city or have been greatly influenced by the experiences in the city.” But that does not limit the story’s appeal. After all, the themes are universal. Rajkumar Gupta, director of Aamir, believes that while the city’s diversity has a major role to play, the answer can be as simple as the fact that Bollywood is based in Mumbai. After all, for the film-makers working within tight budgets, it is easier to shoot in their own city.

It is undeniable though that the city is a powerful influence for film-makers. A good number of films stem out of realities that are Mumbai. If the dark reality-scapes have become the identifiable norm, it is a true barometer of the soon-to-be-absurdist life in this metro.